For anyone who loves Virginia, Highland County is a natural shrine.

With only about 2,000 people scattered over 415.74 square miles of mountains and valleys, Highland is the least populous county in Virginia.

It has no railroad, no inter-city bus routes, no commercial air service and only one blinking stop light. Phone calls still cost a dime.

What Highland County has is natural beauty and geophysical characteristics that, in the eyes of some, endow it with a mystical relationship to the rest of the state.

Highland is tucked away in a western corner of Virginia about 165 milies southwest of Washington. The natural way to find it is to begin at the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads and follow the river as far as possible to the west and then north until the water ceases to flow.

When that happens, you will be in the heart of Highland and, unless you mistakenly wandered off the main stream, in the heart of the Blue Grass Valley near the community of Hightown.

If you continue a few paces to the north, you will pick up the rising of the South Branch of the Potomac River, which you may follow north and east past Washington and eventually back to the mouth of the James at Hampton Roads.

Thus do the rivers that rise in Highland's Allegheny Mountain valleys encircle the great Virginia culture hearth. If that is not enough to make Highland a geographical shrine, a symbolic source of regional life, then consider her western border.

Here, on Allegheny Mountain, there is, appropriate to Virginia's national role, an opening to the west. The streams that flow from this mountain into West Virginia lead to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. There is a point on this dividing mountain from which a thundershower could rush off into the James, Potomac or Mississippi.From this triple watershed, it is possible to walk downhill all the way to Richmond, Washington or New Orleans.

It is hard to say what time of year is best for a pilgrimmage to Highland. The county's average elevation is the highest in the state and in the fall its six great mountains are brilliantly clad with maple, birch and oak leaves.

In winter, the snow is deep and the forests still. In summer, the five principal valleys between Shenandoah Mountain on the east and Allegheny Mountain on the west are broadly green.

Crowds come in the fall to see the leaves, in the early winter to hunt deer and turkey and in the late winter to celebrate tapping of the maple trees for syrup.

The last maple syrup festival ended March 19. A week later, an extraordinary ice storm, 2.5 inches of freezing rain, weighted the limbs of the Highland forests, splintering mature trees, blocking roads and shutting off electrical service to almost everyone in the county.

It was a reminder of the harshness of mountain life and it left a warning sign for visitors. By the middle of last week, roads were clear and power restored, but the forests looked as if they had been subjected to an artillery barrage.

From the crest of every mountain - Shenandoah, Bullpasture, Jack, Monterey, Lantz and Allegheny - could be seen a forest of jagged stakes interspersed among the trees that escaped sever damage.

At the National Forest Service pinic grounds at Locust Spring in the northwest corner of the county, a slender branch had been thrust by the weight of the ice like a spear through the tough fiberglass roof of the outhouse.

However, out in the woods on the slopes of Buck Knob near Locust Spring, the devastation seemed in harmony with the other cycles of nature.

Throughout a night of piercing starlight, the soggy forest floor froze crisp and did not warm sufficiently to renew its spring thaw until midmorning.

A hoot owl began its call before sunrise, unperturbed by the alterations of its surroundings that had been performed by the storm. A sunrise walk down the run that flows from Locust Spring to Laurel Fork, a sparkling headstream of the Potomac, flushed a grouse also at peace with the ruffled woods.

Locust Run, Buck Run, Laurel Fork - all ran full with the flush of the spring thaw. From their banks, deep in the woods, the splintered trees were obscured by the living. The source of life seemed to have survived.